How To Write 100 Novels
by Bavo Dhooge
I’ve been a professional writer/author now for 15 years, writing all kinds of books, from crime novels to science fiction. Next year I’ll celebrate the publication of my 100th book at the end of 2016. Every one of my books has a title that begin with the same letter: S. Yes, everybody has a thing. Maybe this thing will even get me in to the Guinness Book of World Records one day. Who knows? Anyway, because of these titles, in my homeland, I got a funny nickname, ‘The S-Express’. It’s a gimmick that holds all 100 of those different books together, from my LA-set noir series, to my latest novel coming out in English, STYX, a story about a zombie cop hunting after a serial killer.
At lectures or signings, I often get asked: why the hell does anybody want to write 100 novels? I always give the same answer: I consider writing a craft. Just like a carpenter can make 100 good chairs, a writer can write 100 good books. The more important question is: how were you able to write so many novels (without turning into a zombie yourself)? Every writer has a different process, but perhaps mine will help you. For each of my 100 novels, I’ve created an extensive “Pre-production” stage. Before I even set finger to keyboard, I go through each of these X steps:
- Visualize your success: In university, I studied to be a film director, although I never intended to make movies or work on a film set. The process of making a film, however, is somewhat the same as writing a book. It’s all about visualization. The more I write, the more I realize that thinking about what you are going to write is much more important than writing the stuff itself. One of my all-time favorite authors — Raymond Chandler — apparently took a couple of weeks to write his stories in his head before sitting down in front of his Underwood. So, before I start writing the first sentence of my books, I have to believe so much in myself and in the story I want to tell, that I play the role of an agent or a big studio hot shot. I have to convince myself that this story is worthwhile, so I have to sell the project to myself. That way, I’m sure I won’t be writing for several months, and suddenly realize that the story is not so original or isn’t strong enough to capture me. With Styx, this was easy: the character kept haunting me (even at night) and that’s always a good sign. The reason he captured my inner-studio exec was that the main character, Styx was… me. I woke up one morning, aged 40, with a hell of a pain in my hip and a hell of a midlife crisis. I felt very much alone, almost like the character in Albert Camus’ The Stranger. When I looked back upon my life so far, I asked myself the question: what if I could get a second chance?
- Think about your pitch: First thing I do when starting a new novel, is wander around (yes, like a zombie with a cup of coffee in the morning), repeating the same verse over and over, like a mantra. This verse is usually a sentence, what they call in Hollywood a ‘pitch’. It’s the heart of the matter, the center of my story. In the case of ‘Styx’, the pitch is very high concept and consists of only a couple of words: ‘Zombie Cop VS Serial Killer’. I then write the pitch down on a small card and hang this card on my mood board. This pitch is like the train tracks on which the S-Express will travel on. So, when I’m actually writing and get lost (which inevitably happens), I can look back at my pitch and remember what the direction and destination of my novel are.
- Test your pitch: Once I have the perfect pitch, I have to know if this pitch is original enough. So, in a next phase I escape from my desk (Oh, what a nice and pleasant life a writer has!) and go to a bar or a restaurant with a friend. There the real test starts. I begin to pitch my story, as if it were real, or something I had read in a newspaper. Okay, with ‘Styx’, this strategy is not so convincing, but still… The trick is to stop in the middle of the conversation and find an excuse to leave the table. For instance, I go to the toilet or to the bar and order a few more whiskey’s. When I return, there are two likely outcomes: my friend is eager to know the rest of the story, and I have him hooked. Or my friend will start talking about something else, for instance last week’s soccer game. If so, that’s proof that I have to reconsider or rewrite the pitch. Writers have a tendency to stay in their iron tower, and I understand this, because writing is a very serene, introverted occupation. It all happens in your head. I had to overcome this fear of sharing my ideas with the world because I realized how necessary this step is. Working on the pitch is just like working on a joke. There are no bad jokes, there are only jokes that are badly told. I should add here that I didn’t actually come up with this idea (if only I were so brilliant!) This idea comes from Paul Schrader, writer of Taxi Driver and other Scorsese movies.
- Find a central image: Next in this ‘pre-production’ phase, I look for an interesting picture that fits the pitch. In case of ‘Styx’ this was easy: it had to be about a zombie, but not the usual group of zombies, eating human flesh, like in most B-movies. No, this zombie, ‘Styx’, had to by himself, isolated, looking for fellow zombies, but understanding that he is alone in the world. He’s the only zombie. Even more unusual for a zombie, although he was a bad man in life, he’s a good zombie in death. He gets a second chance. And because he lives between life and death, he can travel to another Ostend (the Belgian beach city where the story takes place), that of the Belle Epoque, of the late 19th century, a place where the Surrealists lived and portrayed lots of surreal scenes of skeletons, skulls, death masks, etc. Therefore, the picture, that was also used as a cover for the original Dutch novel, was that of a very stylish skeleton, dressed in a 19th century tuxedo. The singular image, like the pitch, helped focus me during the writing process.
- Find the right title: So now, with the pitch and the picture found, I have already two parts of my Holy Pre-Production Triptych. Third and last piece is the title. Immediately I came up with the name ‘Rafael Styx’. Not only because all my titles start with the letter S, but also because of the reference to the river Styx. I spend a lot of time thinking about the right names for characters. The name Raphaël sounds almost like an angel (Gabriël), to reflect Styx’s newfound honor and goodness. As the story grew and came along, I knew that the story was the character. The title could only ever be Styx.
- Get to know your story: With this triptych hanging on the wall behind my desk I feel as if I have a safety net and can move onto the next phase in my pre-production stage. It’s one of the more technical parts of my writing process. I write out a short biography of the main characters, as if they really exist, and a synopsis of ten sentences (which often becomes the text on the backflap of the novel). Then I expand that summary out into a three page synopsis (with the beginning, the middle and the end, according to the basic three act structure used in theater and movies). As I do this, I also build out my mood board with inspiring examples from other books, films, paintings, drawings, etc.
- Set your safety net: After five or six days doing all this work, you might expect a writer to sit down, call in, and get to writing, doing what a man’s got to do. Well, I did so in the beginning of my career, but sometimes I got carried away and, in the middle of the story, I would wander off and got lost. So, to be really safe, I have a final, very important safety net, which is called ‘the treatment’. It’s very simple: before writing the chapters, I just write one sentence to pitch every chapter, so I have 30 chapters in 30 sentences. When you put this together you have the whole book.
My pre-production process may seem excessive, but with these safety nets in place, I know what to write and I don’t have to take the time (or lose the time), staring out of the window, like some 19th century poet, looking for inspiration. I cannot afford to think five hours about one sentence. I’m not a poet, I’m a writer. I write one chapter a day (sometimes two) because when I sit down at my computer around 10am I already know what it is I’m going to write. My pre-production process like sketching a drawing, and then the writing is like colouring it, using the right words, inventing scenes, action, character, dialogue, etc.
But none of this is original. Many of my processes were borrowed from other authors, and I highly reccomend that you read other books on writing, including Ten Rules of Writing by the master Elmore Leonard. I’ve simply picked what works best for me. Then, with all this in place, it’s full steam ahead for the S-Express.
A final note: people think you have to write 24/7, like Asimov, to write 100 novels in 15 years. Well, you don’t. I only write three hours a day, but then again: I do it every day, sometimes in holidays. Does that make me a maniac? Perhaps, but I’m a very happy maniac. :)